Wandering, Seeking, Distracted Discovery
A reflection by Rev. Dr. Thom Bower
Based on Psalm 119:97-105
For June 11, 2017
Walking the labyrinth is a prayer unto itself. The action needs no words; it is the intentionality of the walker that makes this a prayer. Now, I am going to talk about walking and walkers, but it is really moving through the labyrinth. Just like the psalm speaks of God’s word being a path, walking is intended as a metaphor. Because to walk a labyrinth one does not need to have such an elegantly painted floor: may use paper with a printed labyrinth and move through it with your finger. In fact, I encourage you during this reflection to use the finger labyrinth to trace the path. Or, if you’d like to, you may get up and walk the labyrinth with me.
There’s a Catholic sensibility of the mass being the mass – the act itself is complete. Walking a Labyrinth has three main parts: entering the labyrinth, arriving at the center, and then exiting the labyrinth. These three parts make a complete prayer. You don’t have to say anything, ask anything, or even focus on anything other than walking. The activity of moving through the labyrinth is the prayer.
Now, you can use the labyrinth to focus your prayers. A lot of people use it to become attentive, to be aware of the present moment without distraction. I actually admire those people, because whenever I walk the labyrinth I find my thoughts drifting away on something else. So I usually start with a particular prayer – say for understanding a situation – and ask God to use my meandering through the labyrinth to be a time of insight. I begin by focusing on what I know of that situation, and when I find myself distracted I ask God what insight the distraction brings to the situation at hand.
For example, this week I walked the labyrinth for a friend who spent a night in jail. I found myself thinking about the Wonder Woman movie. When I realized my mind had wondered, I asked God what Wonder Woman had to do with my friend. And I began to pray for my friend to have more healthy heroes and role models.
The three movements of a labyrinth walk – entering the labyrinth, arriving at the center, and then exiting the labyrinth – lend themselves to a variety of prayers. A common one is confession: use the time entering to prepare to be in God’s presence, use the time at the center to read scripture or sing songs to God, and then use the time exiting to confess what has kept you away from being in God’s presence. Others change that order, choosing to confess on the way to the center, to enjoy God’s presence while at the center, and to focus on scripture or hymns on the way outward. Again, it is the journey that is most important.
Labyrinths are not exclusively Christian. Every culture has some sort of spiral design connecting this world to the spirit world found in pottery, painted on cave walls, and even painted and tattooed onto bodies. They take a certain form in ancient Greece, a form rather similar to this one.
This labyrinth is based on the one in the medieval cathedral of Chartres in Northern France. They pathway was initially meant to remind people of the holy heavenly city. In Medieval Christianity, penance was a central act of faithfulness. We Protestants really don’t understand penance. We’ve made it to be some sort of forgiveness for sinning. But penance is a way to intentionally grow in faith.
And one of the most common acts of penance was to take a pilgrimage – to literally walk to a place where God’s activity was known to have happened: Lourdes, Cologne, Krakow, Fatima, Toledo and the biggies Rome and Jerusalem. Go see the shrines identified with God’s great activities, and then return home: this is an act of growing your faith.
A pastor-friend of mine has been walking the Camino de Santiago, a pathway from Paris to Santiago Spain, just about 1500 km, which is about 900 miles. He’s broken it into several portions, and goes once or twice a year to do a new section. He jokes about it being penance – about making up for some bad he has done – but it truly has a sense of pilgrimage: a time away from church work to concentrate on his relationship with God by doing something out of the ordinary: walking for most of a day for about 10 days in row.
But just like not everyone today can afford to take 10 or 12 days to walk in Spain, not everybody in the Medieval church could afford to go on such a long trip, or to be away from home for that long, or to physically make that kind of journey. So some places like the Chartres Cathedral put labyrinths in their floors or in their gardens. Walking it regularly – say every day for six weeks – became a substitute for making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
Walking the labyrinth began to make all walking prayerful. And I think that is the more difficult kind of pilgrimage: staying near home and seeking God’s extraordinary presence within the ordinariness of our daily lives.
There’s another connection to this morning’s psalm. A lot of psalms seem to have been written in connection with some great moment – either an exultation or trauma: a wedding; the coronation of a king; a war; a disease; a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. But Psalm 119 seems to have been written in the time of life that is uneventful and even monotonous. It’s almost a junior high writing exercise: write eight lines about living within God’s law all starting with the letter A, then write eight lines for the letter B, and so on through the entire alphabet.
Living within God’s law is not done because of extraordinary greatness nor extraordinary defeat, but by walking faithfully in the everydayness of everyday life. But it is within that kind of persistence that we discover intimacy with God. It is within that kind of persistence that we discover wisdom and understanding. It is within that kind of persistence that we discover relationship with God is more than keeping a set of rules, that it is more like keeping a relationship lively.
My hope is to make you more curious about the labyrinth as a form of prayer. There is a labyrinth walk scheduled this Saturday from 4-6, but you don’t have to come just when there is a labyrinth walk scheduled: you may also come to the building just about anytime and walk the labyrinth. Gary is here Monday through Thursday mornings, I am here at all sorts of odd times, and there are other church leaders who have keys to let you in so you can walk the labyrinth and pray.
And you have the option of using a paper labyrinth. You may take one of the oriented labyrinths with you so you can walk the labyrinth without coming to the building; maybe you’ll want to try making a regular summertime prayer. If you don’t want to take a paper labyrinth, please leave them here. We’ll be reusing them throughout the summer.
I love your instruction Lord.
I ponder it constantly.
I have not set my feet on any evil path
so I can make sure to keep your word.
I have not deviated from your rules
because you are the one who has taught me.
Your word is so pleasing to my taste buds—
it’s sweeter than honey in my mouth!
I’m studying your teachings,
which is why I despise false leadings.
Your word is a light to for my feet and a light along my path. 
I will follow you,
I am wrapped up in you,
I belong to you.
 Psalm 119, paraphrased bower.
 Chorus from I Will Follow by Kistrene DiMarco, which followed this sermon.